House Made of Dawn N. Scott Momaday
(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.
The following entry presents criticism on Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn (1968). For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 19, and 85.
Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for House Made of Dawn (1968), Momaday considers himself primarily a poet. All of his writings, however, are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths. House Made of Dawn received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. It was the first novel written by an American Indian author to be so recognized, and its publication along with the award initiated what has come to be called a Native American Renaissance of literature.
Plot and Major Characters
The action of House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945, and February 28, 1952. The narration comprises an undated prologue and four dated portions set in the Jemez pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico (the prologue and sections one and four take place here) and the Los Angeles area (sections two and three). After the brief prologue which describes a young man running, the story proper opens on July 20, 1945, when a young man named Abel, an orphan raised by his traditionalist grandfather, Francisco, returns to Walatowa after serving in the second world war. Alienated and disorganized by war experiences (and also, it is suggested, by the early loss of his mother and brother and previous bouts of malaise), Abel is unable to make a meaningful reintegration into the life of the village. He takes a temporary job cutting wood for Angela St. John, a troubled, sensuous visitor to the area, and has an affair with her. He participates in a village festival and is singled out by a strange, ominous-appearing albino man. Meanwhile, the omniscient narration follows a parallel line with the village priest, Father Olguin, as he studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolas. On August 1, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the story ends the next day with Abel's grandfather Francisco, again alone, hoeing his fields.
The two parts of the second section are dated January 27 and 28, 1952. This section takes place in Los Angeles and centers on the character of Tosamah, a Kiowa storefront preacher and believer in the divine properties of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The January 27 section contains the first of two sermons by Tosamah, a long discourse on a verse from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." Tosamah maintains that language has been debased by white people and its power lost or corrupted. At the time that Tosamah is giving this sermon, Abel appears to be lying miles away, barely conscious after having suffered a terrible beating that has disabled his hands. The omniscient narrator moves back and forth in time presenting fragments of Abel's past: filling out forms in prison or afterwards; meetings with an earnest social worker, Milly, with whom he has an affair; life in prison; and testimony at his trial by Father Olguin and by a friend of his from the army. This section also contains a depiction of a peyote ceremony and introduces Ben Benally, who will play a significant part in Abel's eventual apparent rehabilitation. The January 28 section is composed almost entirely of Tosamah's second sermon, a passage in which Momaday meditates on his Kiowa grandmother's life and the history and passing of the magnificent Kiowa culture. (This piece was previously published as an essay in Ramparts magazine and was later incorporated into Momaday's autobiographical work, The Way To Rainy Mountain .)
The third section is dated February 20, 1952, and is narrated by Benally. His rambling narration includes references to more of Abel's life in Los Angeles: his job at a box-stapling factory, his encounters with a sadistic policeman named Martinez, his participation in peyote services, and their occasional socializing with Milly. Benally also recollects the recent encounter with Angela St. John, who visited Abel in the hospital as he was recovering from the beating that left his hands broken; Angela, now the mother of a son, told Abel a story with a heroic theme, intimating that he reminded her of the hero. Benally also recollects going with Abel to a party in the hills outside the city on the night before Abel was to leave; Benally recalls that at this time he sang traditional songs from Navajo healing ceremonies, including the verses beginning the actual Navajo song called "House Made of Dawn."
The fourth section of the novel is very brief, comprising two sections dated February 27 and February 28, 1952. Abel returns to Walatowa in time to perform the appropriate burial rituals for his grandfather. Having seen to this duty, he begins to run into the dawn. The novel has moved in a circle, returning to the event depicted in the prologue.
House Made of Dawn takes its title from a translation of a Navajo song which is part of an extensive religious ceremony. The text of the translation is included in the novel as a song sung by Benally. The house referred to has been identified as one of the prehistoric cliff dwellings along the upper Rio Grande, and the song alludes to it as the home of the semi-divine personification of the dawn. Throughout the novel, important events and insights occur at dawn or sunrise. Also, throughout the novel Momaday incorporates ceremonial, mythical, and anthropological material from three different American Indian nations—Jemez Pueblo, Kiowa, and Navajo—into the texture of the contemporary story of psychological disintegration and renewal. House Made of Dawn is narratively complex, constructed on a principle of fragmentation and reconstitution somewhat like the modernist poems of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, which Momaday studied with noted American poet and critic Yvor Winters while in college and graduate school. The story has a circular rather than linear or strictly chronological structure: the prologue that begins it actually depicts the closing event of the book, and within each section linear time is reshaped through the wandering thought patterns of the narrators and central consciousness. Moreover, within the story are inserted various non-narrative verbal forms: besides the translated poem text mentioned above, there is another translated poem, fragments purporting to be the diary of a priest, pieces of bureaucratic/legal documents and testimony, and folk tales and legends. The reader's attention is repeatedly drawn away from the story and toward the author's literary devices.
Consistently praised for his exploration of Kiowa concerns and traditions, Momaday is a seminal figure in both mainstream American and Native literature. House Made of Dawn is frequently taught in literature courses, and critics note that all his works are of great importance to Native and non-Native students alike. Momaday's blending of ancient and traditional material with contemporary and modernist techniques has reminded many critics of James Joyce, who combined Catholic religious and Irish political contexts with parallels to classical Greek mythology in such works as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Also, Momaday's use in House Made of Dawn of a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, multiple narrative voices, and flashbacks have earned him favorable comparisons with American novelist William Faulkner. Alan R. Velie has observed: "Momaday's achievement in House Made of Dawn is significant. He was able to employ the rhythms and imagery of his verse in creating a prose style that is both lyrical and powerful. It is no mean achievement to make the self-destructive, alcoholic Abel a sympathetic and complex character, or to portray the dusty pueblo of Jemez as a beautiful and exotic place…. House Made of Dawn, Momaday's first literary success, is also his masterpiece."